Culture of entitlement wears thin

A TV current affairs program recently aired a story on the rollout of the national broadband network, an interesting tale of the haves and have-nots. Winners with high-speed fibre connections were grinners, and the losers were ropeable. One man quoted in the program almost exploded out of the television with frustration that he lacked an NBN connection. Fair enough at one level, disconcerting at another.

The program didn't deliver me sufficient context (a redundant and maligned word these days I know, yet I cling to it) to understand whether his sense of entitlement was reasonable in all the circumstances. That minor mystery notwithstanding, the strength of emotion gave me pause. Do we all deserve a high-speed fibre connection right this second? Are we entitled to rail if it is not delivered?

I'm not embarking here on any patently indefensible defence of the NBN rollout. It's behind schedule, and the government can make its account to the public about why that's the case. I'm reflecting more generally on what we think we deserve, and our unforgiving disposition when we don't get it. Does the community have an entitlement mentality, the political class now wonder? Is it reasonable, is it affordable, and if it isn't, what on earth do we do to counter it?

But while politics peers out at this emerging conundrum and mutters censoriously about it sotto voce, it rarely interrogates its own hard-wired entitlement culture. If there was a word cloud about the 43rd Parliament, entitlement would be top of the pops.

There's Julia Gillard's moment of entitlement that lead her to take the leadership from Kevin Rudd. There's Rudd's sense of entitlement to have his leadership restored, even if it means destabilising the government he says he wants re-elected in 2013. There's Tony Abbott's sense of entitlement from when he was outplayed by Gillard in the negotiations that established the minority government, which then spilled over into a political strategy of personal anger and aggression, which the Coalition has harnessed to bombard the government's standing and legitimacy.

Everyone thinks their position defensible. Gillard wouldn't see herself as Lady Macbeth. She'd see herself as having acted against a leader who had lapsed into a dangerous personal funk that could have consumed the government; and acting with the support of most everyone who mattered. Then, and now: time to move forward.

Rudd - when not compelled to publicly pronounce himself ''bright-eyed and bushy tailed'', part of the team and fully recovered from all those icky things in the past - would feel himself perfectly entitled to campaign to resume the job wrongfully taken from him, by whatever tactics and means he can muster.

And the stubborn longevity of the Gillard government, with its tendency to careen between achievements and chaos, is a permanent red flag to the ultra-competitive Abbott, who believes (and intones hyperbolically, and overly often) that the government should have ''died of shame''. Abbott doesn't perceive his behaviour as the world's longest tantrum undertaken by an adult.

For him it is justifiable outrage against a government without legitimacy.

I suppose all this toxicity could be put down to normal ambition rather than wafting entitlement. Politics is crammed full of people on the permanent travelator to enhancement - a state that gives the whole scene its vaguely amoral and surreal quality, its combative and backbiting atmospherics, and its fascination for onlookers.

But the current cycle is about more than ambition. It's as if a swamp of narcissism and self-indulgence lurks always in the shadows. Periodically the grievance geysers erupt again in a slightly new iteration.

The events are all linked, so the players are all linked, and the corrosion drips on. We, the voters, are left watching an insiders game where protagonists talk in code and the media relays the code to an audience bored and estranged in their own parallel sense of entitlement. (Why are you all talking about each other, when you should be talking about me? Delivering my bloody NBN connection. Who cares about what Maxine McKew thinks about Gillard's motives in ousting Rudd? Enough about you and your kabuki play, more about me.)

Perhaps one of the protagonists can summon the strength and acuity to punch through the morass. Perhaps a transition is already happening.

The alternative is that the cycle ends conclusively with the election in 2013. What are the scenarios? Gillard wins, legitimacy asserted. Abbott wins, 2010 ''wrong'' righted. Rudd returns; fate, whatever it is, accepted. The cycle has damaged all of them, singularly and collectively. Their destinies are now strangely merged.

Individually they want different things: Gillard wants out of the dynamic, but her fellow actors resist. Rudd can't seem to stop the positioning and the proxying, the hoping. Abbott can't seem to contain the frustration, even though it's costing him, both within the Coalition and with the voters.

The great irony is they are all better than the sum of these parts. Love them or loathe them, they are three standout political talents of our time who want to serve their country.

Perhaps the truth is simple and it's this: it's time we snapped out of Groundhog Day. All of us. Past time.

Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent of The Age.